Importance of Dry Inland Ports in the Intermodal Supply Chains

Manohar Patwardhan | Intelistics Corp.

Definition of an Inland Port

An inland port is an intermodal terminal, often considered an extension of a seaport, located along an inland waterway such as a river or river system. It can be hundreds of miles from any sea or ocean. Other inland ports are landlocked and connected to seaports by rail and truck lines. For this article, we will consider only these landlocked intermodal inland ports.

An inland port is often many miles from any seaport and strategically positioned to be closer to inland businesses and consumer markets. Very often, large importers and exporters establish warehouses and distribution centers within a couple of hours driving distance by truck from an inland port. At times, warehouses and distribution centers are located within the same town where the inland port is in order to improve efficiency and reduce transportation time and costs. 

Inland Port Operation

An inland port is connected to a specific seaport. For example, the Virginia Inland Port (VIP) is an intermodal container transfer facility in Front Royal, Virginia that is owned by the Virginia Port Authority.

Depending on the type of facility, once containers are discharged from a container ship, they are loaded directly onto rail cars, or they are trucked a short distance and then loaded onto rail lines. Containerized rail service then transports the containers from on-dock or off-dock facilities to the inland port. Inland ports are usually designated as a U.S. Customs port of entry, allowing the importers to custom clear the cargo at the inland port. The importers arrange for these containers to be picked up and brought to their distribution centers for further processing, transportation, and/or distribution. The empty containers are then returned to the inland port for subsequent use.

On the reverse trip, exporters arrange for the export containers to be brought to an inland port, loaded onto rail cars, and transported back to the seaport for loading onto the outbound container ship.

The deployment of Transportation Management Systems (TMS) and a variety of telematics via mobile devices generate a high level of in-transit visibility for supply chain stakeholders which in turn generate “situational awareness.”

Advantages of Inland Ports

  • Reduced Congestion/Faster Transit – Since containers travel on rail cars to the Inland port, highway congestion does not impact container transport.
  • Reduced chassis usage – If inland ports did not exist, truckers would be responsible for transporting loaded import containers on chassis from seaports to consignees’ facilities and returning the empty containers back to the seaports. As a result of the existence of an inland port, the import containers are available to be picked up at the inland port and the empty containers are returned to the same inland port. Chassis are used only during transport from an Inland port to the consignees’ facilities and back to the Inland port.
  • Since transportation to the inland port is accomplished by rail, pollution is also reduced.
  • As container ships have gotten bigger, port authorities and terminal operators have deepened inbound channels and berths, so that ships with bigger drafts can be accommodated for discharging cargo in existing facilities. These necessary developments have taken place on the waterside of terminal operations, while landside improvements are often limited by existing land-based infrastructure. This is where an inland port provides a safety valve to reduce congestion, enabling cargo headed inland to be railed instead of trucked. An inland port can then act as a staging ground where import cargo can be picked up for further processing and transportation by various companies. Leveraging an inland port in this fashion helps reduce excess truck traffic. The same holds true for export cargo and empty containers that need to be repositioned back to seaports. Exporters deliver their cargo to the inland port, and the cargo is then railed to seaports along with remaining empty containers. The empty containers are then loaded onto outbound export ships which further reduce terminal congestion.
  • The land and infrastructure within seaports are dedicated to handling ships, discharging cargo, and processing goods for local delivery. Additionally, land space within the port is allocated for U.S. Customs and other authorities overseeing cargo processing. These activities limit available space for importers and exporters to build warehouses and distribution centers within the port itself. Compared to seaports, land within a reasonable driving distance is readily available for importers and exporters to their build their facilities—often at less expensive rates.  


The deployment of Transportation Management Systems (TMS) and a variety of telematics via mobile devices generate a high level of in-transit visibility for supply chain stakeholders which in turn generate “situational awareness.” In this respect, the inland port operates much like its waterside counterpart.


Inland ports are not a necessity for every port but, where present, inland ports are an important element in today’s intermodal supply chains, enabling efficient operation, lower costs and reduction of marine terminal and traffic congestion.

Manohar Patwardhan is a SME in Logistics and is the President of Intelistics Corp which provides IT consulting services to customers in the logistics industry. He may be reached at 609-423-3190 or [email protected]

Image credits: nattanan726/, Alan Stoddard/